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Using the Mind to Heal the Body

Guided imagery and hypnosis may speed healing

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Updated August 27, 2013

Can you speed up the body's healing process using your mind? Techniques such as hypnosis and guided imagery not only help athletes perform well during competition, but research continues to find that it may be possible to speed up the healing process by using specific mental skills and techniques and maintaining a positive mindset. Researchers have been studying how the mind influences healing for decades and the results continue to find a very real connection.

A 2006 qualitative analysis of the use of imagery by injured athletes concluded that "the implementation of imagery alongside physical rehabilitation should enhance the rehabilitation experience and, therefore, facilitate the recovery rates of injured athletes." Another study looked at the differences in people who healed quickly and those who healed slowly and found some significant differences. Those who healed faster had the following characteristics:

  • Took personal responsibility for their recovery process
  • Had high motivation, desire and determination
  • Had more social support
  • Maintained a positive attitude
  • Frequently used imagery and other visualization techniques
  • Expected a full and successful return to sports

What is Imagery?

One specific technique that is often used in sports psychology and in healing is called imagery. This is also sometimes referred to as guided imagery, mental rehearsal or self-hypnosis. These are all terms used to describe specific techniques that use all of the senses to create mental images, feelings and sensations related to a desired outcome as though it is happening now or has already happened. By using all your senses to create this very real experience of having the desired outcome, you mentally and physically rehearse this desired state.

Research on imagery use by injured athletes, cancer patients, and those undergoing physical rehabilitation has shown that using imagery has many positive outcomes including:

  • Increased feelings of control
  • Increased rate of healing
  • Increased ability to cope with therapy
  • Increased motivation to participate in self-care
  • Improved mood
  • Improved quality of life
  • Decreased post-operative pain
  • Decreased post-operative anxiety
  • Reduced length of time in the hospital
  • Decreased amount of pain medication taken

When to Use Imagery Techniques

There are many uses of imagery or self-hypnosis in sports medicine. These techniques have been found to be useful in injury recovery, pain reduction, sports performance enhancement and general stress management. There are possibly many more uses that haven't yet been studied.

Imagery for Pain Reduction
The idea behind using imagery for pain reduction is built upon the principle of relaxation. When muscles are relaxed, they hold less tension. This often leads to reductions in the experience of pain. Imagery techniques that often help increase relaxation and reduce pain include imagining the sensation of getting a massage, sitting on a warm beach or taking a hot bath. Some people have success with imagery by imagining pain being released from the body in a visual way, such as being breathed out with each exhalation. If you mentally rehearse experiences such as this in great detail, you are using imagery.

Imagery for Healing
Just as people use imagery for reducing pain, individuals have reported that similar techniques work for promoting healing and recovery. Examples of healing imagery include imaging a broken bone being glued back together or torn muscles woven back together. Some people use warm, healing colors to promote a feeling of warmth over a body part. Even silly images of strength and power found in comic books have been used successfully to aid healing.

How to Use Imagery - Step-by-Step Guide
If you want to try imagery, but aren't quite sure how to begin, this step-by-step guided meditation cue sheet can help you get started.

Source

Driediger, Molly ; Hall, Craig ; Callow, Nichola, Imagery use by injured athletes: a qualitative analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, March, 2006

Evans, Lynne; Hare, Rebecca; and Mullen, Richard, Imagery Use During Rehabilitation from Injury, Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity, Vol. 1. 2006

Ievleva and Orlick, Mental Links to Enhanced Healing: An Exploratory Study, TSP, 5(1), March 1991.

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